Display Mechanisms: Raymund Ryan Curates Architecture with a Sense of Place

Interview by: Adam Kor

Raymund Ryan is the curator of architecture at the Carnegie Museum of Art (CMoA)’s Heinz Architectural Center in Pittsburgh. Originally from Ireland, Ryan looks at the city as both an insider and outsider, bringing the international design scene into regional dialogue.

Ryan’s curatorial approach emphasizes design and education—perhaps unsurprisingly, considering his previous experience as an architect and university teacher. After years working as a critic, he curated the inaugural Irish Pavilions for the Venice Biennale of Architecture in 2000 and 2002. Over a cup of coffee, Ryan reflects on the challenges of curating architecture, Pittsburgh’s architectural quirks, and some of his favorite books and exhibitions. Whether speaking on the challenges of reaching the public, Alison Smithson, or Ulysses, Ryan’s insights reflect an eclectic sensibility evident in his approach to exhibitions.

Adam Kor: So how did you get into curating in the first place?

Raymund Ryan: Before I became the Curator at the Heinz Architectural Center (HAC) here at the CMoA, I worked as an architect. Architecture has its own way of doing things. Then I taught at the University College Dublin for about ten years. I got to experience the ecology, sensibility, and mindset of three quite distinct habitats. While I was teaching in Dublin, I curated the first two Irish Pavilions for the Venice Biennale. Working in Venice was very high-stakes. Everything happened fast and people were installing up to the very last minute. That’s something my museum colleagues find extremely stressful and annoying, but that’s the reality of working at biennials. If you have the right team it’s quite fun.

Can you talk about what you do at HAC?

I’m the curator of HAC, one of the five departments of the CMoA. We were set up in 1990 and opened in 1993 thanks to the generosity and the vision of Drue Heinz, the elder Mrs. Heinz. She and her husband supported architectural exhibitions and projects for many decades in the UK.

We’re a little unusual in that we have a permanent space. If you come to the museum you’ll notice that we have a gallery that not only is on view nearly all the time but has a changing program with, roughly speaking, three shows a year, each typically on view for three months. We curate shows with a global reach and geographic spread, but we also strive to have more relevance to Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania.

And that makes HAC quite special among its museum contemporaries.

Indeed. There are relatively few art museums with architecture departments in North America. The Museum of Modern Art in New York, of course, is the big game in town. I like to describe it as the Kremlin and the Vatican of the architectural museum world. It has a long, long legacy dating back to the 1930s.

The Art Institute of Chicago also has its own architecture and design department. That of course makes complete sense because Chicago has an amazing architectural history and legacy. And there’s the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which has a comparatively new architecture department, founded in the 1980s. They’ve had several interesting curators, and they’re now in the new building by Snøhetta. So they’re the three big departments in the US.

The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles used to have an architecture department. They did some great shows. Their 1989–1990 show, Blueprints for Modern Living: History and Legacy of the Case Study Houses was one of the seminal shows in the architectural world. It was both local and global. It included the famous Los Angeles architects of the 1950s such as Charles and Ray Eames and Pierre Koenig, all the while maintaining a great appeal to the public, in part because the images of LA are known all around the world through movies and advertisements. It was a really accessible exhibition.

Now, the Canadian Center for Architecture in Montreal is a very specific sort of institution. Phyllis Lambert, who’s an extraordinary person, established it in the 1980s. They have a major archive leading to many academic projects, along with the usual exhibition programming.

“Dialogue on Details” panel discussion, August 28, 2012, Venice Biennale of Architecture. Left to Right: David Chipperfield, Vittorio Lampugnani, Raymund Ryan, Tod Williams, Billie Tsien, Wang Shu, and Toshiko Mori. Courtesy of the Venice Biennale.

A row of people sit in white chairs, legs crossed, in discussion in front of a white wall with blue text that reads "Common Ground - Biennale Architecttura - Venezia - 29.08-25.11.20"

Back to Pittsburgh, what did you think about this city when you first came here?

When I first came to Pittsburgh, it reminded me of Dublin some decades ago. On the one hand, people were a little overconfident, on the other hand they weren’t quite ambitious enough. That funny mixture.


Yes, in the sense that people have a very strong sense of pride in being Pittsburghers. Our pride in our sports teams is an obvious example. That’s fantastic. But then there’s also a sense of self-doubt within the architectural scene, about whether we can do work as good as that in other places. This is a very interesting issue, not only in Pittsburgh, but across American cities I think.

Several years ago at a Venice Biennale I counted the US presence. From the US pavilion, the main exhibition, and then some of the collateral shows, there were twenty-four US practices. Of those, with the exception of Jeanne Gang from Chicago, all the architects were either from the East Coast—in particular, New York—or the West Coast—specifically LA. This is not good for American architecture. It creates an imbalance. I did a piece about this in the Architectural Review in the summer of 2015, discussing a distinct American-ness found only in the regions, far from the seats of cultural power. Essentially, I argued that some of the best, most original architecture is outside the big cities. I think you can find that from the ’90s onwards, certain places—Phoenix and Tucson, Minneapolis, the Pacific Northwest—have developed a critical architecture. I’m not sure if we have done that yet. Pittsburgh has some interesting architects, but I’m not sure what connects them as a potential school or culture.

Of course, I don’t want to apply just one characteristic to all the architecture in any one place. When I first got here in 2003, I did a quick summer show called Pittsburgh Platforms as a way to get to know some of the architects in town and some of their work. In Pittsburgh, it’s obvious there’s the possibility of working with what already exists—with the urban fabric and with topography and with a desire for sustainability. 

That leads to my next question about communication. The job of the curator is often to communicate difficult ideas to different audiences. In some ways we try to do that as well at Point Line Projects, acting as an agent between different groups. With that in mind, how do you frame your exhibitions?

I think it’s very important to engage in dialogues with outsiders because people often don’t see the potential of what surrounds them.

We try to bring the architects in our shows here to look at Pittsburgh and think about issues that are both local and universal at the same time. For instance, in Building Optimism: Public Space in South America, we had Al Borde from Ecuador offer ideas for Recycle Park in North Braddock. For Gritty Brits: Contemporary London Architects, we had muf (Liza Fior and Alison Crawshaw) as one of four teams looking at the North Side as part of the Charm Bracelet Project. These are some of the ways we try to bring people from far away to look at Pittsburgh with fresh eyes.

Discussion of Pittsburgh’s Modern legacy during HACLab Pittsburgh Salon: Our Modern City, April 7, 2016.

Raymund Ryan sits in the middle of a room of people with his chin in his hand, deep in thought, while someone next to him is explaining

What is the most pressing challenge you face as an architectural curator?

Well one big issue is how computerization affects architecture and the curatorial community. For example, in terms of our collection, we have roughly six thousand objects. Typically, we select a few dozen objects for our summer shows. As we move forward, we’d like to try different ways of using the collection, to be more innovative and strategic

However, like all museum architecture departments, we have the issue of how to collect from an architectural profession that’s now almost completely inside the computer. It’s been an issue for fifteen or twenty years now. What are we actually collecting? It’s a very important question, and it’s directly connected to the way buildings are designed and made these days. So our acquisition of the 3D print from Jakob + MacFarlane in Paris two years ago was the first 3D print that the department has acquired. It’s not that we’re going to go completely in that direction, yet we have to think about acquiring objects like that so that our summer shows have materials that help people better understand what’s happening in architectural offices. To ignore this would be to adopt a kind of Luddite pose.

Yes, and it’s interesting to consider how new technologies change how we experience exhibitions as well.

Yes. This is an issue that I think all departments across the museum world have. Magazines have a similar challenge. And how do you communicate with people out in the blogosphere or whatever it might be? When people think about the museum building, they often think of the information desk as being the front door of the museum. I would argue that the website is the front door. And so the more information—and feedback—we can collate there, the better. But it’s not always easily achieved.

At the Heinz Architectural Center we’re experimenting with new strategies through what we call “HACLab.” In 2015 we hosted an entire architecture studio from Carnegie Mellon University in the galleries. The idea was to have the students work in situ so that museum visitors could gain access to the world of architecture in a less authoritarian or formal way.

Installation view, Building Optimism: Public Space in South America, 2017. Courtesy Carnegie Museum of Art

an interior gallery view - on the floor is a large architectural model of a city, and on the surrounding walls are a video monitor and other architectural related works

I know you travel pretty extensively. What exhibits have stood out to you through the years?

Well, I think I have to go back to Blueprints for Modern Living in 1989 at MOCA in Los Angeles. That was a fantastic exhibition. Toyo Ito also made a great exhibition called Visions of Japan at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in the early ’90s. A show I wish I had thought of was Architectures non standard at the Centre Pompidou from 2003–04. It included architects such as Ben van Berkel and Greg Lynn who were at the time—and still are—exploring computational design and making unorthodox, non-orthogonal architectural forms. It was contextualized as an alternative modernism to the obvious boxy lineage of, let’s say the Bauhaus, Mies van der Rohe, and SOM.

So since we’re an editorial agency, do you have a book that you wish you had written?

Oh, that’s also a good question. I really like AS in DS: An Eye on the Road by Alison Smithson. The play on words of the Citroën DS 19, the car she drove with her husband Peter from their London office to their Wiltshire cottage, is a sort of joke. It’s DS but in French that’s pronounced “day-ese.” As is déesse, the French for goddess. The book is shaped like the outline of the car and is essentially a series of illustrated notes and observations of the English countryside. Really nice book. In terms of the writing, it has to be Delirious New York by Rem Koolhaas!

Why is that?

It really was a game changer, along with earlier books such as Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966), and Aldo Rossi’s Architecture of the City (1966). Delirious New York was published in 1978, the hottest publication in the English-speaking world at the time. There’s something so provocative about that book. It’s attractive in the way it invents this surrealistic narrative about the city, especially at a time when, in many people’s minds, the city had more or less been abandoned, both literally and as a subject matter in intellectual discourse.

And last question—which three books would you bring with you if you were stranded on an island?

Well, Ulysses is the obvious one for anybody from Ireland. It’s very long, but my birthday is on Bloomsday, June 16th, the day the book takes place, so it’s particularly special for me. I’m tempted to say Andy Warhol’s Exposures. Just for fun or amusement. Or maybe it should be a bound copy of Interview Magazine from 1975 to 1990, roughly. And a third book. Am I allowed to bring an empty book, a sketchbook?


Well, a sketchbook, that has to be—an empty book so I can draw. And write. And make lists.

Featured image: Raymund Ryan with Marialuisa Borja, of Quito-based practice Al Borde, at Recycle Park in North Braddock, Pennsylvania, 2016. Courtesy of the Carnegie Museum of Art. See the finalized proposal for the park renovation here.

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